Interpreting the numbers
Via A Conservative Blog for Peace, TitusOneNine has posted a link to a spreadsheet of 2006 statistics on the Episcopal Church. There’s a great deal of hype (or, as the Young Fogey might put it, “common knowledge”) about how church statistics get interpreted.
I commented on the Young Fogey’s blog and wanted to flesh out a “hype-free” method for looking at church statistics. Being hype-free is the equivalent of being as exciting as bran flakes, but I feel that it brings much-needed focus to the art of statistical interpretation.
1. Pay attention to population density.
After the 2004 presidential election, Ann Coulter made a remark about “seeing a lot of red” on the US map, even though the popular vote was very close (50%/48%). Looking at the map, though, she’s right. There’s huge swaths of red in Wyoming, Montanta and the Dakotas. Blue-voting states seem miniscule by comparison.
Of course, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas are have some of the lowest population densities in the US. Added together, their population is less than the city of Boston alone.
The same goes for church statistics. Comparing the dioceses of Dallas and Nevada has an unfair whiff to it when you consider the respective populations. Comparing, say, the diocese of Dallas and Massachusetts shows a greater parity. Better yet would be a per capita normalization to take away bias. Even better yet would be not to do this at all.
2. Beware double standards.
What I said on the Young Fogey’s blog: “The double standard usually goes: when the numbers are in my favor, it’s because we are right and they are wrong. God blesses the right with good numbers and curses the wrong with decline. When the numbers are not in my favor, the story is Athanasius contra mundum. The righteous few are the remnant bearing witness to a lost nation.
Christians of all kinds, liberal and conservative, are guilty of this kind of thinking. (I’m not innocent of it.)
Either way, the numbers always support the position of the speaker. It’s great for finger-pointing and self-righteousness.”
Numbers don’t make right. Or wrong.
3. Beware post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Also, correlation does not imply causation.
Interpreters of church statistics love this fallacy. We take one statistic only. One downturn, one uptick–it doesn’t matter. Then we take one cause celebre and say that this one issue caused the statistically-measured shift.
Church decline is due to the ordination of women. People are coming back to church for the Latin Mass. When you add contemporary worship music, members are alienated and leave. When you add contemporary worship music, churches grow by doing away with those stuffy hymns.
It’s weak logic and bad statistics all around. There are many reasons for church decline or church growth and the issues are systematic and complex. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a good introduction to these cultural and systemic changes.
4. Beware schadenfreude.
“In all things, charity.” By combining the three above, the path to self-righteousness is easily found. It’s easy to point fingers at the areas losing church membership, blame them for their too liberal/conservative theology, and take joy and thank God that “I am not like other men.” Jesus was pointed about this type of behavior.
Any church, any diocese, any denomination losing members ought never be a source of joy. As interrelated members of the Body of Christ, the injury that happens to one member ought be felt by all.